After a long day working on his small piece of land about 500 metres off the banks of the Shire River in southern district of Chikwawa, Malawi; Mateyu Chilachila and his family retired to bed to recharge for another day on the farm. It was a busy week of weeding the family farm of maize, sorghum, tomatoes, bananas, and sugarcane. They were determined to get the best of their crops.
While they slept, rains fell and continued the following day, and another; induced by Storm Ana. Warnings of flooding followed on Radio; Civil Protection Committees (CPCs) at the district level and other non-profit groups quickly got together and ensured that all affected communities were reached with the warning messages.
Chilachila took the warning with scepticism because the last major flooding events in 2015 and 2019 did not get to his farm. But later that night, woken by his wife who feared for the worst as the rains continued; he groped out to inspect the house. He was met with deep cracks on the wall and, together with his wife and three children, they sought refuge about a kilometre away.
The next morning, Chilachila and his family were homeless, their home having been flattened by the flood waters. Their crops were swept off too.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,’’ said the 48-year-old farmer who has lived in Kadula Village all his life. “My life depends on what is now under the water. I invested all my money, energy, and time and now I am not sure how I will survive and provide for my family.”
Without a home, an income nor savings; Chilachila is dreading the worst, having encountered poor yields and low prices last season.
From his earnings of 170, 000 Malawian Kwacha ($190) from last season’s harvest of tomatoes, maize and okra he managed to take care of his household needs including school fees for two of his six children, and bought two pigs. One of those pigs succumbed to disease while the other died in the floods.
“This year, I expanded my farm because I wanted to buy cows, but all those dreams have been washed away,” he said. “Who will pay the school fees for my kids? Where will I get the seed to replant?” he kept asking, as he walked us through the muddle and wreckage left of his farm.
Weeks after the floods, what used to be Chilachila’s village is all covered in sand, with crops either completely washed away or buried in the sand, no farm is spared in the whole area.
“We can say we are all landless now because nothing can grow on this soil again. It’s all sand,” Chilachila said while pointing to gullies left by the storm.
According to the weatherman, there are just two months left before the end of the rainy season, and even as the farmers come to terms with their losses, the season is catching up with them and so is poverty.
In the neighbouring Nsanje district, 73-year-old Peter Jimu is in a similar situation. He had distributed his risks by planting uplands and in a low-lying area, close to the river. Due to unpredictable weather conditions, the season could go either way he says; “In case of drought the farm near the river will save my season, but if it rains too much then I can count on the one upland.”
This is a practice he started after the floods of 2015 which had been preceded by a prolonged drought. This time he was wrong, the floods swept both farms, leaving him with nothing. Jimu is one of the area’s lead farmers using climate smart technologies, including planting early maturing varieties.
“But how does that count in a disaster of this magnitude?” he asked. “The water levels were just too high. We are all confused. Even our agriculture extension officers are puzzled by this.”
Across the district, at least 1,300 hectares of different crops were destroyed, and over 36,000 households, mostly subsistence farmers, were affected directly.
Across the country, more than 115,000 hectares of crops have been damaged, affecting more than 106,000 farming households. Forty-six people have died, while eighteen others were counted as missing two weeks after the floods.
The Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction of 2015, to which Malawi is a party, advocates the creation of policies and programmes that build the capacity of communities to cope better with such hazards and to build back better from a catastrophe.
In a recent interview, special representative of the UN Secretary General on Disaster Risk Reduction Mami Mizutori advised the country to mainstream risk reduction approaches at all levels.
“We have had good conversations with the government and we do think that a country like Malawi needs to put more financing into disaster risk reduction and prevention. For example, social protection initiatives that help the vulnerable communities cope better with adversities.”
The Malawi National Resilience Strategy (NRS) lists agriculture as a decisive sector in realising the country’s development blueprint – the Malawi 2063 vision. The sector however relies mainly on small holder farmers like Chilachila and Jimu, who currently lack capacity to deal with the adversities of a changed climate.
Successive weather extremities over the past decade continue to leave them poorer and more vulnerable to subsequent hazards. Only risk reduction initiatives that put vulnerable communities at the heart of policy and programmes will help the country realise its development goals.